Friday, 17 April 2015

Stories that shouldn’t die

Child inmates at Auschwitz.
Child inmates at Auschwitz. Source: News Corp Australia

Yecheskel Taler with his mother and sister in Germany after the war.
Yecheskel Taler with his mother and sister in Germany after the war. Source: Supplied

Benjamin Netanyahu gives an address.
Benjamin Netanyahu gives an address. Source: AFP

Israelis attend this week’s Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in
Israelis attend this week’s Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.Source: AP
Nazis deciding the fate of prisoners at the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.
Nazis deciding the fate of prisoners at the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. Source: AFP

Stories that shouldn’t die
The numbers they carved on her left forearm in the winter of 1943 are fading away, just like Yehudit Yegerman and her generation. It’s no matter, she says quietly. The 85-year-old Holocaust survivor can recite them by heart.
“7-1-5-0-2,’’ she says slowly, making sure I get the sequence down. “I stopped being a person at Auschwitz, I was that number,’’ she explains. “We all were numbers, living, dying, being gassed or worked to death. To the Germans it was just business. To us, it was a constant horror.’’
Memorial services for Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Day, were held around the world this week, including in Australia, to mourn and remember the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi extermination campaign in World War II.
Millions more — from Russian prisoners of war to the wandering Romani, to the mentally and physically disabled — were murdered by the Germans and their allies in the bloodiest crime against humanity committed in modern times, perhaps of all time.
About half the known survivors — 189,000 of them — live in Israel, the Jewish state founded on the ashes of the Shoah. Yesterday, sirens wailed for two minutes in shrill remembrance, bringing the country to a standstill. Cars pulled off the road while pedestrians stood silently on footpaths and in supermarket aisles, heads bowed.
This year’s commemorations are laden with added poignancy for a number of reasons. Wednesday, April 15, was 70 years to the day that the Bergen-Belsen camp in northern Germany was liberated by horrified British troops, opening the world’s eyes to the Nazi’s concentration and death camps. Yegerman, then 15, was among the emaciated survivors.
Originally from Czechoslovakia, her family had run a kosher restaurant before being rounded up. They were transferred to the local Theresienstadt ghetto, before arriving at the dreaded gates of Auschwitz in southern Poland, fewer of them at each turn. The starving and traumatised girl spent the final, terrifying months of the war in Belsen waiting for the end to come, one way or another. “I didn’t think much (beyond) what I was going to get to eat,’’ Yegerman remembers.
Living alone all these years later in a flat outside Tel Aviv, with a housekeeper for company, she is two years older than the average for a Holocaust survivor. This is 83.3 years, according to Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel. The youngest person on its books is 69; born after his mother was freed from a camp in 1945. The oldest survivor is 104.
As was the case with Australian active servicemen from WWI, now entirely passed on, and the dwindling cohort of WWII veterans, the ranks of Holocaust survivors is thinned year by year.
At Wednesday night’s packed ceremony at Yad Vashem, the state Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, torches for the Jewish dead were lit by survivors of the slaughter.
Young people craned their necks to see.
“We wanted to experience this,’’ says Yuri Steinman, a bearded bookkeeper in his 30s, his girlfriend, Anni, by his side. “We know these guys won’t be around forever. They are heroes to us.’’
With 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, Yecheskel Taler was deeply moved. His story is remarkable, even by the standards of luck and endurance needed for a Jew to survive the Nazi occupation. Taler, 76, grew up in the Galician city of Ternopil, then part of Poland, now a major centre in western Ukraine. His father, Moshe, was a prosperous businessman who owned ­supermarkets and warehouses. When the Germans rolled in, in 1939, the family fled using fake identities.
Eventually, he and his mother reached the great city of Krakow. He was hidden in a cellar by a Polish family. It was too dangerous for a Jewish boy his age — 4 or 5, it’s such a blur he’s not sure — to be on the streets. Eventually, his mother, Hannah, came for him. An educated woman, she had found a place on the household staff of a Nazi psychiatrist, Helmut Sopp. Of all people. Sopp performed experiments on concentration camp inmates and was jailed for war crimes after the war. Unaware that he was sheltering Jews, he was mostly kind to Taler and his­ ­mother.
In 1947, what was left of the family emigrated to Israel. Presciently, Moshe had bought a property in the port city of Haifa years earlier.
Taler’s father did not survive the war; he was turned in while trying to join Hannah in Krakow and killed at a police station in 1942 or 1943.
Taler joined a kibbutz, and kept his past to himself. The ropy-armed Israeli kids couldn’t understand how the European Jews didn’t fight back. “In the beginning we were accused of being weak victims,’’ he remembers. “People just didn’t understand what it was like.’’
He did his national service in the Israeli army and joined the medical corps, serving under fire in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, his country’s worst scare at the hands of the Arab armies. He joined the Council of Higher Education, responsible for accrediting Israeli universities, and is now a director of the Holocaust victims’ foundation. There, he worries what’s to become of the Shoah survivors in Israel.
Interest in their stories is waning, he fears. Recently, a survey for the Centre of Organisations of Holocaust Survivors found 80 per cent believed the memories of Nazi genocide would fade away with the victims. In time, it would become a “vague historical event’’, just another chapter in the long, fraught history of the Jewish people.
This week, the Holocaust victims’ foundation dropped a bombshell report detailing how a quarter of survivors live in poverty. Their numbers had reached a tipping point, with 13,000 dying in 2011, the latest year for reliable statistics. A third of those left would succumb in the coming years, the report warned.
Some 20 per cent of survivors couldn’t afford heat in the winter while 5 per cent complained they didn’t get enough to eat. Half of all survivors needed financial help; 30 per cent wanted nursing care.
Rony Kalinsky, general manager of the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, ruefully shakes his head. “These people should be able to live in dignity.’’
Professor Taler says it’s not so much a lack of funds, but how the money is carved up. An international Claims Conference, funded heavily by Germany, often pours money into institutions such as hospitals rather than putting cash in the pockets of survivors.
Those who do get support from the umbrella fund or the Israeli government can find that a relatively modest monthly income — say 6000 Israeli shekels (about $A1950) — cuts away the safety net for health and social services.
Taler worries about the message Israel is sending to the world. If it can’t treat Holocaust survivors generously, who will? “It’s unbelievable that they are not appreciated,’’ he tells The Australian.
“We as survivors contributed so much to this country.’’ He points to Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. “Thousands who came here from the camps were killed,’’ he says. “Many of them went into unmarked graves.’’
Yegerman, for her part, says she has no complaints. She’s heard about other survivors doing it tough, but is grateful for the quiet life she leads. Holocaust Day still hits her hard, even after all this time.
“I’m very sad,’’ she says. “I have felt sad my whole life. I lost my whole family … I live alone. This is not how I hoped it would be.’’
She travels often, sometimes to Germany to speak to schoolchildren. She’s fluent in the language, and wants them to hear from her what went on in the death camps, while she’s able to tell the harrowing story. “That’s my life’s work,’’ she says.
Taler is equally committed to speaking out, while he can. “We will become another dot in history if we don’t continue,’’ he says, picking up Yegerman’s theme.
Yes, there are things he doesn’t like about his country. The treatment of the Palestinians “stinks’’, and he hates the bad blood festering between re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama over the Palestinian peace process and Washington’s policy to contain Iran’s nuclear program.
But there’s much he admires about the state of Israel, too. Its vibrant if unruly politics; the nurturing of more Nobel laureates per capita than any country on earth; and just look at the number of tech start-ups its 8 million citizens managed — second only in aggregate terms to the US. “I am very, very proud to be Israeli,’’ Taler says.
The chill of the Jerusalem night is cutting through our coats as Netanyahu begins to speak at Yad Vashem. He is comparing the Nazis and the Iranians, modern Israel’s arch foe. “As the Nazis sought to stamp out civilisation and to set the master race to rule across the earth … while wiping out the Jewish people, so does Iran seek to control the region, spread outwards and destroy the Jewish state,’’ he says.
The political tone of his speech sounds discordant on this dignified evening. Some people shuffle uneasily. At the end of the ceremony, the man beside me intones that earthy toast in Hebrew: l’chaim.
To life, I reply.

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